2 Minutes With ... Chris Sojka, Founder & CCO at Madwell
Chris Sojka is the founder and chief creative officer of Madwell, a cross-medium creative agency based in Brooklyn. Chris has combined his training in fine art with a love of human psychology to build Madwell's proprietary advertising approach around the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) triangle. Madwell's strategy, creative, technology, experiential and media teams are organized by their roles in the delicate balance of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that defines CBT theory.
Recently, Chris' passion for vertical integration led to the launch of two Madwell subsidiaries—Sibling and Madventures. Sibling, which is a micro-network of creative production shops, comprises three self-sustaining departments: Starfish, a content creation wing; Bankrobber, an experiential marketing arm; and Millwright, a fabrication lab. Madventures, which is Madwell's incubation program, creates and scales brands with the goal of a successful exit or IPO. This unit has launched or invested in RifRaf, Champ, Zeel, Local Hoops, PL360 and an upcoming cannabis business.
We spent two minutes with Chris to learn more about his background, creative inspirations and some recent work he's admired.
Chris, tell us...
Where you grew up, and where you live now.
I grew up in the middle of New Jersey, truly in farm and horse country (yes, New Jersey does have that—it isn't just the turnpike). I have lived in New York for 19 years, migrating from Manhattan for college to Brooklyn. I'm now in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
How you first realized you were creative.
My mother nurtured that side of me and helped me understand that I had a desire to create, organize, and arrange things. She could have quashed it, but she saw it as something that could really define my life. To be specific, when I was a very young boy, she gave me a budget to decorate my bedroom. I picked the paint, race car wallpaper, furniture, and art. I felt like I had created a space that reflected what was happening in my head, and that was enlightening for me, feeling what I imagined surround me in the real world. However imperfect it actually was.
A person you idolized creatively early on.
I would say that was Michael Jackson. I fell in love with this very strange movie he made called Moonwalker. It used stop-motion animation, claymation, and computer graphics. You know, cutting-edge special effects at the time. Ultimately, it was a montage of all the videos from his Bad album arranged around a subplot featuring Joe Pesci as an evil drug dealer. It is bananas. But it felt like it was unbridled creativity, mixing Gulliver's Travels references ("Leave Me Alone" video) with Golden Age Hollywood dance ("Smooth Criminal" video). It blew me away, and to this day it is something I hold as a north star for just … going for it. It was both meta and totally un-self-aware. I understand that we have societally reevaluated his legacy for good reason, but I wanted to share something that truly inspired me long before those layers of complexity were part of the equation.
A moment from high school or college that changed your life.
My sophomore year in high school, I was involved in a school bus accident. We hit black ice and flipped over three times. My best friend, James, broke his neck in five places. I had just a gash on my head and regained consciousness outside the bus (I flew through the emergency exit). I helped James off the bus and laid him down on a pile of coats. That was the first time that I felt entirely and completely mortal. And it changed my understanding of what I wanted to accomplish in my life.
It made everything feel more urgent, and it made me want to be sure that, to the best of my capability, I was putting more good into the world than bad. I don't know if I've succeeded, but that was a directional reset for me. This was a pivotal moment in understanding that what we do, what we create, what we try to accomplish in our lifetime is who we are. If we’re lucky, we create some positive ripples.
A visual artist or band/musician you admire.
The Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan is, for me, somebody who has been able to—with humor, visual boldness, grace and craftsmanship—create piece after piece that challenges our perceptions about everything: religion, capitalism, relationships, immigration, about just the general glue that holds society together. And he does it with the mischievous mind of a young boy. His work transcends mediums, topics and cultures and cuts to the heart of the things that make us feel unsettled and confused. It makes me laugh and cry. Most of all, it just fascinates me. I am envious of the handful of agencies who have had the opportunity to hire him to create campaigns.
A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is one of the greatest movies ever made, in my opinion. It was a movie that made me feel as if the pressure of the universe was on me throughout the duration of it. I left the movie feeling a lightness of being because I realized we put so much pressure on ourselves to do so much, and that directly correlates to the pivotal moment I had in the bus accident, feeling mortal. But at the end of the day, there are a thousand paths to fulfillment and to happiness. And if you crush them under the pressure of needing to accomplish everything all at once, via a specific predetermined path, then you’ll never find any of them. Michelle Yeoh needed to win best actress at the Oscars.
Your favorite fictional character.
Max from Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. He found beauty and friendship in monsters and courage in his imagination and joy in the scary. He's a model for maintaining childlike wonderment while maturing.
Someone or something worth following in social media.
Matt Reuter. He used to work at Madwell. He's a brilliant cartoonist and also a really, really good person. He's gotten cartoons in The New Yorker and other places. His commentary on society and our hypocrisy is just brilliant.
How Covid-19 changed your life, personally or professionally.
I have ADHD, and I thrive on the ability to walk and pace and move about the office and get interpersonal energy. To suddenly be reduced to a walk from my bedroom to a makeshift office in my home required learning new ways to read nuance and subtlety. To exist as little heads in boxes like The Brady Bunch was difficult professionally. But because of that adversity, we also made some of the best work we’ve ever made as an agency. I accept that it will never be as it once was; I’m all for flexibility. But there’s no substitute for the human empathy afforded by physical interaction. I think of commuting like a wetland: an ecosystem to filter your mind between two big masses, in this case the ocean and the land as metaphors for home and the office. I need all three to feel balanced.
One of your favorite creative projects you’ve ever worked on, and why.
A project for Visible by Verizon called "Red Rocks Unpaused." It was the height of the pandemic, and live concerts were effectively canceled. People yearned for that experience of being together at a live event. With Visible, we devised the idea of taking over the shuttered Red Rocks venue in Colorado and putting on concerts with some incredible artists across genres and offering it to the world for free. Obviously, this was part advertising, but it brought so much joy to millions of people. It was interactive, too. You could cheer with your phone, and the artists could hear you, and it could even influence the projections behind them. It was a wonderful merger of bringing entertainment and marketing, not just selling them things. It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime event to see these artists perform at Red Rocks with no live audience but to millions of viewers.
Someone else's work that inspired you years ago.
When Madwell got its first piece of press, I got a call from Israel Garber, who today is the global ECD/manager/director of Havas Worldwide. He offered to come to our office and hang out. I learned all about the storied campaigns he’s worked on. I found such simple brilliance in so many of them, like the tagline "Talk to Chuck," which was a crazy-casual way to market financial services for Charles Schwab. He created, in three words, a way of taking a stuffy, potentially inaccessible financial advisory firm and breaking it down into the sensation that you were talking to the man who started the very institution itself. I found the power of his succinct words profoundly inspirational. That's when I realized a tagline exists because it is really the big bag of a universe of creative output. But it also moved me that he had taken the time to come to meet two unknown founders with a tiny irrelevant agency and give advice, comment on our work, and even bring bagels. I've personally never told him, but I guess he's the first mentor I ever had.
Someone else's work you admired lately.
I have consistently found inspiration in work from The Community. Joaquín Mollá, their chief idea officer and co-founder, is a remarkably versatile and thoughtful creative. The body of work he produced called "Verizon versus Verizon" in 2020 was truly beautiful and a way of cinematically showing commitment, tenacity, technology, and the structural commitment it takes to run a mega network connecting us all. To be an agency that can do that and also produce a packaging innovation for Oreo Thins that makes them look like book titles on a bookshelf, or to make an historical short film for Porsche that is both lighthearted and deeply moving, shows me everything I hope to attain in my career.
Your main strength as a creative person.
I can synthesize how to attack multiple mediums into words, which means I'm hopefully speaking to strategy, design, copy, and creative direction (among others) simultaneously.
Your biggest weakness.
My thoughts move faster than me.
One thing that always makes you happy.
Sitting at home with my dog and my girlfriend, Molly, and watching a movie, ideally with Nicolas Cage in it. The latter part is an ideal my partner does not share. But she’s generous about it!
One thing that always makes you sad.
When animals die. I was raised in a family that breeds and trains dogs for a living. I cannot make it through Bambi or Marley and Me with dry eyes.
What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising.
Making films—or at least trying to.